Little Miss Sunshine

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 08/28/06 07:35:16

"Quitters never win but is it always worth winning?"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Waiting to pay for some items at the local pharmacy on my way home from "Little Miss Sunshine," I spotted the "People" cover featuring JonBenet Ramsey -- that poor, sad icon of everything that's wrong and right with America. The photos of JonBenet all gussied up seem scarcely less unnatural than her violent fate.

There's something creepy and pedophilic about the whole enterprise (often fuelled by frustrated beauty-pageant one-timers like JonBenet's mother). I flashed back on the scenes in Little Miss Sunshine showcasing little girls tarted up enough to make JonBenet look plain. The sight is both ghastly and saddening, and it brings everything in this undercooked but successful film into sharp focus. Is this sort of contest worth winning? Is it so bad to lose at being a mini-whore?

In ways big and small, the whole movie asks those questions. We're introduced to a New Mexico family of desperate strivers -- the Hoover family (the name being a not-so-subtle pun about how much they suck; apologies to readers who share the name). Richard (Greg Kinnear) has a nine-step program promising to train "losers" to become "winners," but he hasn't realized that nobody's going to take how-to-win advice from someone who hasn't won anything yet. While Richard waits for his ship to come in, in the form of a possible book deal, his frazzled wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) keeps food on the table (Sprite and take-out chicken). Her brother Frank (Steve Carell) is despondent after having been dumped by one of his (male) grad students. Richard's dad (Alan Arkin) is an irascible old goat. Finally, the family's two kids have their own goals: Dwayne (Paul Dano) has taken a vow of silence until he gets to go off to the Air Force Academy, and Olive (Abigail Breslin) dreams of being a beauty queen, under the tutelage of Grandpa, who seems to have a kind word only for her.

Little Miss Sunshine follows this dysfunctional clan as they travel by dysfunctional minibus from Alberquerque to Redondo Beach to enter Olive in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. Along the way, most of what can go wrong does, and for a while the movie flirts uncomfortably with Weekend at Bernie's territory. For the first half hour or so, the film got my back up; I assumed this indie darling (a Sundance winner picked up by Fox Searchlight for $10 million, and posting decent box-office returns in its slow rollout) would be yet another smug comedy building up middle-class straw men only to incinerate them. What we didn't need, I thought, was a farcical variation on American Beauty, or a road trip in which everyone Hugs and Learns Something.

But as it goes along, Little Miss Sunshine accumulates depth and fleshes out its characters. Greg Kinnear's Richard, for instance, shows us the abject terror inside the winner's pose. Steve Carell moves away from his cartoonish specialty and makes Frank a saturnine, darkly sarcastic man, a Proust scholar in a world of people who've never heard of Proust. The movie stays within its realistic, lower-middle-class framework. The American Dream isn't working for these people, because it isn't their own dream. The ethos of winning, surface success, beauty -- it deforms the best and destroys the rest. Billed as a comedy, the movie spends a surprising amount of screen time wallowing.

And then it comes -- the climax at the pageant, with its too-mature little girls looking like amped-up, horribly sexualized versions of the girls in Sparkle Motion in Donnie Darko. (For good measure, Beth Grant -- who played Darko's obscenely driven Sparkle Motion stage mom -- shows up here as a pageant official who almost doesn't let Olive in because the family is five minutes late. I half expected her to question Richard's commitment to Little Miss Sunshine.) Charismatic but a bit chunky and plain, Olive can't compete with the shining corruptions of girlhood on the stage, and the family realizes that with horror and then relief. What follows happily defiles the fake dignity of the pageant -- of all pageants. Grandpa, the horny old coot who picked the inappropriate song Olive dances to, may have understood better than anyone the nature of the miniature meat market. The scene rises from embarrassment to triumph, and we're left with a rejection of false values that feels honest and earned.

And then, at the pharmacy, I looked at JonBenet and remembered that one of the pageants she won was Little Miss Sunburst. Under Colorado state law she would've been old enough this month to get her driver's license.

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